Israel starts court-ordered evacuation of homes in West Bank settlement

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images - Families evicted from the Ulpana neighbourhood move into temporary housing in the nearby settlement of Beit El on June 26, 2012 in West Bank. This is the first day of the evacuation, during which 33 families will be moved several hundred yards to a temporary settlement located inside a military zone.

BEIT EL, West Bank — Israel began evacuating Jewish families Tuesday from homes in this settlement that were built on private Palestinian land — a move ordered by Israel’s Supreme Court that has pitted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the settlers and their backers in his governing coalition.

The first of 30 families to leave the Ulpana neighborhood did not resist, in keeping with an agreement between the government and leaders of the settlers on a peaceful evacuation. Teams of workers from the Israeli Defense Ministry packed up the settlers’ belongings and moved them to temporary housing in prefabricated dwellings erected in an emptied border police base next to the settlement.

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“This is a black day for us,” said Amir Dana, a father of five, as cranes lifted furniture out of the homes. “This is a moral and legal injustice, but we’re peaceful people. None of us wanted a fight among brothers and a confrontation with police and soldiers.”

Like the other evacuees, he wore a black T-shirt that said, “Expelled from my home. We’ll be back.”

The scenes contrasted sharply with previous evictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in which settlers put up passive or active resistance. The Ulpana settlers, who are religiously observant, said they complied with the directive of a prominent rabbi at Beit El, Zalman Melamed, who counseled them to avoid a violent confrontation.

Militant settlers who have violently resisted other evictions were not in evidence at Beit El on Tuesday, although vandals torched a mosque in a Palestinian village this month, leaving behind graffiti promising “war” over the Ulpana evictions. Some families said they would have to be carried out when their turn for evacuation comes later this week.

Netanyahu, who reluctantly complied with the court order and blocked a bill sponsored by right-wing legislators to retroactively legalize building on private Palestinian land, has promised to construct 300 more homes in Beit El to compensate for the evacuation. He has also pledged to dismantle and relocate the five emptied apartment buildings, rather than raze them.

That process cannot be completed by July 1, the deadline set by the court for demolishing the buildings, and the government on Tuesday requested an extension until mid-November.

Michael Sfard, an attorney for the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din who represented the Palestinian landowners, said that despite the evacuation, the government was defying the court ruling, because the buildings would not be removed in time.

“The government doesn’t think it’s subject to the law,” Sfard said. “They are creating a fait accompli and spitting in the face of the Supreme Court.”

The Palestinian landowners, from the village of Dura al-Qara, next to Beit El, are unlikely to gain access to their property anytime soon, because the area remains fenced off as part of the settlement. Other homes in the Ulpana neighborhood are built on land not covered by the court decision and will remain in place.

Banners and graffiti near the evacuated buildings denounced Netanyahu and echoed the slogan of settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip when Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005: “A Jew does not expel a Jew.” A handmade sign left on the door of an empty apartment said: “The Shimshi family lived here, until it was expelled.”

Carrying her child as she walked by the buildings, Yiska Fattal said she and other evacuees were worried that their removal might set a precedent for evictions at other settlements.

“There’s a danger that other homes will be destroyed in the same way; that’s our biggest fear,” she said.

Two other settler outposts built on private Palestinian land also are slated for removal in the coming weeks under similar court orders.

Unpacking as workers moved boxes and furniture into her new prefab home, Tehiya Ahituv said the state-funded accommodations were cold comfort. “It’s like someone takes your child and says, ‘You have another one,’ ” she said. “What’s hard is that they’re evacuating part of the Land of Israel.”

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